braunwald hike.

•June 28, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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It has been a little while. Sorry. Oops. I’ve been busy, but when am I ever not? Sometimes I still find the time to write. Other times I don’t. I guess this was one of the “don’t”s.

Let’s see. I was doing fieldwork and lab experiments, for one thing. I also went to Lausanne to cover the International Olympic Committee meetings and candidate city presentations by Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China, each of whom want to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It was quite the experience in a lot of ways and I think it might shape how I approach reporting in the future.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was being a bit more editorial. IOC-speak is cloaked in code and references. I felt that in order to convey any information at all, I had to decode that PR-speak for my readers. That meant a lot of contextualizing. So I figured, why not go for it? And I threw in some opining as well. Here are a few of the results:

Six Big Problems With the Beijing 2022 Olympic Bid

By Severing Ties, Bach Kills SportAccord; IOC Carries Full Weight of Sport’s Future & Reform

Almaty 2022 Bid Fights Back; A Games With Real Snow Still Possible

On the whole, the new approach seemed to be enjoyed by readers. But now it’s back to “normal” FasterSkier operations. And more importantly, normal PhD operations. I spend 4 or more hours a day, every other day, counting amphipods in the basement laboratory where there is not even a window for sunlight. On one hand, this is nice, as my office has no cooling system and it can get pretty hot in there. In the basement? No problem. On the other hand, though, we are finally having some nice summer weather and I’m trapped in a basement.

There had been a lot going on, so I decided to take this weekend truly to recover. On Saturday I went for a long rollerski, which tired me out so much I had to take a nap. Sunday I reserved for hiking. I had been trying to fit in a hike the previous two weekends, but the weather just didn’t cooperate. Finally, I had my window.

I took the train out of Zürich and up the Glarus valley almost all the way to Linthal. Taking the train to go hiking on Sundays reminds me of one reason that I love Switzerland.

The train is full: young people, old people. Rich (ish) people, poor (ish) people. People with walking sticks, people with babies in backpacks. Thin people, chubby people, people with knee replacements. People with husbands, people with school friends. Every kind of person is on the train. The things that unite them are their hiking boots and their Mammut expedition pants that probably zip off into shorts.

At each stop up the Glarus valley, a handful or two of people get off the train, backpacks slung over their shoulders and a bright look in their eyes (unless they are teenagers with their parents, then they still look sullen). There are dozens of different trails to explore. And the Swiss explore them.

I’m not sure that I have ever, in the U.S., felt this sense of community and solidarity between people going to do something outdoors. For one thing, we all drive our cars because public transport generally doesn’t even go to the places we want to get to. So as we hurtle towards our day’s adventure, we are insulated from all but our closest friends or family. But for another thing, rarely in the U.S. does such a large cross section of society all end up hiking on the same trail system, exchanging very quiet pleasantries (maximum, three words) as they pass each other.

I finally got off at Linthal Braunwaldbahn, the second-to-last stop on the Linthal line. An especially large number of people got off here too. They were waiting for the Braunwaldbahn, a funicular that runs up the steep mountainside to the village of Braunwald, perched on a plateau above the valley and inaccessible to cars.

No cars!

pure nature – no cars – real winter” is one of their slogans. I love it.

I did not take the funicular, instead hiking up about two and a half kilometers of steep but thankfully shady forest trail.

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Then I came to Braunwald, which wasn’t really what I was expecting. The community is quite large – a lot of summer and winter vacation homes and a few farms scattered across the plateau. (Wikipedia lists the population as 308, which okay, is not a lot, but it’s still at least 200 more than I would have guessed…) Limited electricity; lots of solar panels. There were horse-drawn wagons, street signs, gardens. There were ski lifts criss-crossing everywhere. There were a lot of people and lot of potted plants flowering along the streets.

I walked from the top of the funicular up through the houses and towards the top of one of the ski lifts, which thankfully wasn’t running in the summer (others are). I began to leave people behind, more or less, and it began to get quieter. Okay, so maybe this wasn’t the place to find solitude, but I re-evaluated. This wasn’t bad.

And if you wanted to have a farm, why not have it here? The Swiss government will subsidize you for your hardship.

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At the top of the ski lift, I found a crowd eating at the restaurant, but I also found the Panoramaweg, a nine-kilometer loop trail which was actually what I had come for. After hiking up five kilometers and probably 3,000 feet, I finally got to the “start” of my hike.

It was incredible. It was quieter – I probably saw as many cows as people, although still more people than I would have expected – and for a long time I was primarily jutting through forest, spotting the snowy mountains across the valley every time there was a meadow opening. But then I turned a corner and caught my breath: an amazing peak was just before me.

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The next few kilometers of the loop were simply spectacular, surrounded by amazing views at every turn.

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Seriously, get a look at the cool geometry of that geology.

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I didn’t know much about Canton Glarus before moving to Zürich. I was snobby. I thought of Graubünden, home of Davos and the Engadin and Lenzerheide and most of all haunts from 2013, was the best thing ever. I’m not saying it’s not. But besides the mountains that I got to see close up today, there was simply a dizzying array of peaks receding into the background. It felt so good to be in the mountains today, up high, breathing cool air with a breeze drying out my sweaty shirt.

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Also, the trail itself was pretty cool. At one point it went into a tunnel. Who, when building a hiking trail, says “it would be easier to just hollow out this huge unavoidable rock instead of going around it”? The Swiss, that’s who!

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(This is just the beginning of the tunnel, with one gallery/window opening you can see. It actually wraps around the the left with two more windows chiseled in, and complete with a dank interior and water dripping from the ceiling.)

After making my loop and then hiking back down the super-steep forest access trail, I arrived just in time to catch the train back to Zürich. Perfect.

I’m tired, but I feel a little more ready to tackle the week after clearing my head with 4,000 feet of climbing and a lot of great scenery.

The message of today’s experience? “People live/hike here” doesn’t necessarily mean that, sans solitude, it can’t be a great place to go. All those people wanted to hike Braunwald for a reason. It was a pretty worthwhile reason, turns out.

jura jaunt.

•May 17, 2015 • 1 Comment

IMGP7392On Saturday I went with my friend Timothée on one of the first hiking adventures of the year. There’s still enough snow in the mountains to make a non-extreme form of hiking inconvenient, so we decided to use the opportunity to go to a lower-lying part of Switzerland that, frankly, we always have both just ignored. I’m always lured by the high mountains and the Alps. Instead, we took the train across the country to the French-speaking part, past Neuchâtel, and into the Jura.

Getting off the train in Noiraigue, our first target was the Creux du Van, an amazing geologic feature. We hiked up about five kilometers and 700 meters – it was fairly steep, but pleasant and hikeable – before we caught our first glimpse of the cliffs through the trees. Eek!! Even cooler that we had expected…

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As we stopped to admire the view, we saw some other hikers pausing up ahead, looking at something… it turned out to be an ibex. Oh wait, there’s another one! And another!

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Seriously, these were the tamest ibex ever. Usually when you see one in Switzerland it is up on a ridge, and you can just see its silhouette, maybe especially if you have a scope. “I think I value those more,” Timothée said. I agree. But it was so cool to see some up close! They smell like sheep, which is to be expected. We got, like, ridiculously close.

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[Some research reveals that the ibex were introduced in 1965, and there are just 17, so maybe they have some inbreeding problems, and I guess they have become much more habituated to hikers and other humans than a more truly “wild” population would be…]

So, we walked on, after spending quite some time with our ibex friends. Each view of the cliffs seemed more amazing than the last. We stopped and ate lunch. Then we stopped and just sat in the grass. It. was. awesome! The cliff walls are 150 m high, and the circ itself is almost a kilometer and a half across. The scale is difficult to comprehend.

We had done some research online before going, and the photos seemed amazing. But in person it is so much more amazing. So think, when you see these: I would be blown away if I was there, because it’s 10x cooler than in even the best photo.

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The place is one of extreme power. You feel stronger being there. I also just felt stronger absorbing the sun… and the green… but mostly the wind, and watching the birds play in the air over the huge dropoff.

It was a nice place to hang out. Here’s Timothée trying to get a macro shot of a nice blue flower….

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I also felt at home. Things felt quite similar to New England: hard rock, green mixed deciduous and coniferous forests with lush understories. Aside from the circ itself, I felt like I could have been hiking in the White Mountains. I haven’t had that feeling in a long time, and it was a real comfort. It made me think about what exactly it is that I love about the Whites, which will always be my favorite playground.

Seriously, tell me this vista couldn’t be in New Hampshire:

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Only when you turned around would you realize that, indeed, you are most definitely in Switzerland.

Farming everywhere!

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After enjoying our sun and sky, we hiked down a steep and somewhat slippery path to the center/bottom of the circ. From there, we decided that instead of heading back to Noiraigue, we would continue down to the Areuse river. We heard there were some gorges there.

After hiking down through the beech forest – trail covered in brown leaves, again so familiar to me – all of a sudden we began to hear the water. We came upon the first of the gorges, which had a nice bridge below it to walk over and look up at the waterfall, which carved through a narrow slot canyon, wearing the hard rock away over geologic time.

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After finishing the first section of the gorges walk, we had the option to hop on a train, or keep going. I was pretty ambivalent about more flat walking, but felt lame stopping… so we kept going. and were not disappointed. The gorges go on and on and are truly remarkable. They are interspersed with flatter, calmer sections of the Areuse river, often with a series of small dams and a hydropower plant. We saw one biggish fish in a pool below a waterfall, but as in all of Switzerland, all of the dams must seriously impede normal migration and populations.

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We eventually popped out in the town of Boudry, just down the lake from Neuchâtel. Note to the wise, trains only go from the Boudry station once an hour. We found this out after trekking up to the station and realizing that the train had left approximately nine minutes before we got there… oops. Down on the other side of town, on the lake, is a tram that leads into Neuchâtel and leaves every 20 minutes. Eventually we made it back to Neuchâtel and back to Zürich, very very tired. My Garmin had clocked about 16 k before it crapped out and lost satellite reception in the lower gorges.

The whole experience, from the lofty Creux du Van down into the claustrophobic and beautiful gorges, was incredible. It’s a strange corner of Switzerland, but we were very glad that we forsake (forsook?) the high mountains for the Jura and got to see this. It’s very unique and as tired as I was, I was also buoyant from the energy I gained from the mountain circ.

new paper.

•May 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

A new paper I co-authored with my masters supervisor Juha Alatalo is out in Scientific Reports (he’s the first author, but my day is coming soon! stay tuned in the next few months!). It’s called “Vascular plant abundance and diversity in an alpine heath under observed and simulated global change.” Because SR is open access, you can read it! Click here for the PDF.

It’s based on an old dataset from Latnjajaure, Sweden, which I analyzed as part of a 15-credit “research training” course in my masters. I only later had the chance to spend a few weeks at the Latnja field station, and it was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ll ever have the chance to do fieldwork. Getting this email that the paper was published made me think back on my summer experience there! Here’s a few photos to get you in the mood.

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a real vacation.

•May 1, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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Slideshow at the bottom of the post.

For the first time in…. years?… I took an actual vacation to a warm place. Not a vacation so that I could ski, not a “vacation” so that I could work for FasterSkier, not a “vacation” so that I could go to a conference or summer school and just tack on an extra day for exploring at the end. Nope, this was an honest-to-God vacation, a reward to myself for making it through the first six months of my PhD and passing my first committee meeting.

I flew to Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. It was a real vacation where I could sleep until 12 if I wanted, stay up late if I wanted, go lie on the beach and be useless if I wanted (although I did read a great book, The Orchardist, so it wasn’t totally useless). I ate a lot of seafood, which is something I don’t do here in Zürich for obvious reasons given our lack of proximity to the sea; I got sunburned and suntanned. I tried to use my small amount of Spanish, but got tripped up by the very different pronunciation in Spain from Mexican Spanish… since I don’t speak much anyway, that proved to be the killer stroke.

It never would have occurred to me to go to the Canary Islands, to be honest, since they seem far away, and they are. It’s almost 2000 miles from Zurich. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not far (certainly not as far as it is from the U.S.!). Flights aren’t insanely expensive, and things in Spain are a lot cheaper than things in Switzerland. Crazily enough, with where I’m based right now it was a relatively affordable vacation – and when you can go somewhere completely unexpected, why not? We get in ruts sometimes in going to the same type of place over and over again. I broke my own cycle. I bought a shirtdress from H&M, a running hat from Adidas because I seem to have left my beloved RMBL trucker hat in New Hampshire, packed my bags, and hopped on an Iberia flight in Zurich.

Later that day, I was in an apartment overlooking the rocky shoreline of the Atlantic. The next morning I slept almost til noon with the sounds of the waves crashing in the background.

Being me, of course the relaxing vacation also included quite a bit of hiking. It was hiking that didn’t involve waking up at the ass-crack of dawn, though. Tenerife is a beautiful island and a volcano, Teide, that is over 12,000 feet tall and last erupted in 1909. It turns out that if you want to hike to the top of the volcano, you need to get a permit in advance; by the time I realized this, all the permits were booked for the next three weeks. So I didn’t go there. But there’s a big national part around the volcano with a very arid, Martian-seeming landscape. It reminded me of parts of the American West. I hiked another mountain, Guajara, across the big caldera, and the view across to Teide were amazing – it was also a quiet hike, and maybe actually nicer than the volcano itself. A perfect place for lunch on top.

Another great mountain range to explore is the Anaga mountains in the northeast of the island. Unlike the recently-disturbed volcano in the center of the islands, the Anagas are very old, and they feel like it. Incredibly steep and jagged, they are covered in temperate vegetation even though the ground seems bone-dry. Farming villages with terraced agriculture are scattered throughout; some farms are only accessible by trail, with the houses built into the hillside itself, just a door and maybe one window to tell you someone is living there. The driving is interesting to say the least, but the views are spectacular.

There’s also lots of canyons, or Barrancos, all around the island leading from the volcanic highlands down to the coast. A few are famous and full of tourists; there are many more that are beautiful and more quiet.

Tenerife is a paradise of different ecosystems, vegetations, and geologies. I wish I had read more about the geologic history before going! But if you’re not up for being so active, there are also plenty of beautiful beaches to lie on, local wine and produce to check out, and fish to eat. I can recommend a great AirBnB apartment in a small town, Icod de los Vinos, on the northern coast.

Right now I’m back to fieldwork for me PhD, but the chance to get away and relax was truly special. As my life changes towards being a bit more grown up – in Switzerland even PhD students are given vacation time – I’m realizing that even if I only made one “vacation” trip a year, of one week each, for the rest of my life, there are so many different parts of the world I could see! That’s an exciting prospect. So much of my travel the last few years has been a long weekend trip here or there within Europe. Those are great trips, but you’re limited in how far you can go on a long weekend. There’s more out there to see and as I start to have jobs with actual benefits, instead of being just a masters student, I will have the opportunity to see them. That’s exciting.

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foxspotting.

•April 17, 2015 • Leave a Comment

A week ago I was walking home late at night after catching the last tram from the central station. I had been at a friend’s house playing board games, talking science, and mulling over the ideal level of involvement by a PhD supervisor. We drank quite a bit of red wine.

As I padded up Restelbergstrasse, what I thought was a large cat walked across the road. Then it lay down in the grass between the street and a parking lot.

It wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. There were two of them: one stood on the far side of the parking lot, its dark coat almost completely blending in to the inky night. Without the nearby street lamp to partially illuminate the parking lot, I might not have noticed it.

A week ago I was walking home late at night after catching the last tram from the central station. I had been at a friend’s house playing board games, talking science, and mulling over the ideal level of involvement by a PhD supervisor. We drank quite a bit of red wine.

As I padded up Restelbergstrasse, what I thought was a large cat walked across the road. Then it lay down in the grass between the street and a parking lot.

It wasn’t a cat. It was a fox. There were two of them: one stood on the far side of the parking lot, its dark coat almost completely blending in to the inky night. Without the nearby street lamp to partially illuminate the parking lot, I might not have noticed it.

I watched the lying-down fox for a moment, then slowly reached to pull out my phone. I wanted to take a picture of this wildlife in my neighborhood. But my hand movement was too disruptive, and the fox hopped up, turned around, and jogged to the other side of the parking lot. From there it watched me.

I stood for five minutes on the sidewalk, looking across the parking lot at this fox. We stared each other down. Mentally I willed it to come closer, but no surprise, the fox was stronger. As the bell in the square rang 12:30, I walked up the street and home to my bed.

The larger Zurich metropolitan area has over a million people, and I thought it was very cool that I had seen foxes just trotting in between people’s houses, through their yards, past their driveways. There are many foxes around our farm in New Hampshire, but we rarely see them. It seems notable when you do.

But after a bit of research, I found that my experience wasn’t unique at all.

“The urban fox population is on the rise in Switzerland,” SwissInfo reported in 2011, complete with adorable pictures of foxes in yards. As of that writing, there were about 1,200 foxes in Zurich.

Shows what I know, as a country bumpkin: I thought that wildlife belonged to rural areas. Sure, there’s lots of birds and biodiversity even in urban areas, but foxes?

In 2002, a PhD student from my department wrote a five-manuscript dissertation about the foxes of Zurich. You can skim the whole thing here. It’s fascinating: it appears that there is a clear separation between urban and rural foxes, even when foxes living in rural settings on the outskirts of Zurich could easily shift their ranges into the city. In Zurich, as of 2002, Sandra Gloor found a density of ~10-11 foxes per square kilometer. To avoid contact with humans (i.e., me walking home drunk at night), the foxes used urban parks and cemeteries mostly during the early part of the night, then ventured into residential neighborhoods in the second half of the night, when people were more scarce; during the day, the rest in parks, cemeteries, and fallow land on the outskirts of the city.

Foxes only moved into the city proper in the mid-80s in any large numbers. It’s a phenomenon that has happened all over the world: London has more than 10,000 urban foxes and a significant amount of human-fox conflict.

I like our Zurich foxes, though. It reminds me that wherever you go, there’s a little more nature than you might suspect, and that animals are highly adaptable.

(P.S. Are you a fan of foxes? Check out my friend Jean’s artwork at WildLines Studio, and you can buy beautiful prints like this one of a jumping red fox.)

Engadiner.

•March 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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Last weekend I raced in the Engadin Ski Marathon from Maloja to S-Chanf, in the Engadin valley of Switzerland. I wrote up a little blog post about it for the Ford Sayre Junior Nordic Team blog – I raced in their suit, as I did for the first time in, gosh, 2002? 2003? Anyway, go read my blog post here! It was a fun race and I had a fun time writing it up.

Besides the race itself and the glorious just-for-fun training ski I had the day before going up the Roseg valley (that’s the photo at the top), one of the really fun things about the weekend was all the people I got to meet and hang out with.

I drove down to St. Moritz on Friday night with the Zurich International School ski team, who I’ve been helping coach a little bit on the weekends all winter. They are a super great group of kids and I always enjoy hanging out with them. I also really miss coaching, so it’s nice to get my fix. On this occasion, I drove with Greg Velicer, whose daughter is on the team. He is a great evolutionary biologist (Greg’s own work is amazing, but I will just also mention that he studied with Richard Lenski…), so we spent the drive talking about science, academic life, expat life and… skiing. A lot about skiing. It was really nice to talk with someone about some of the work-life balance challenges I face in trying to maintain an athletic lifestyle, and have them really agree that there’s value in making it work. You can read about Greg’s cool science on his lab website, which describes their research on ecology and evolution of myxobacterial social behavior.

After checking out the St. Moritz night sprint with the high school team (just spectating, after we did an easy ski from Silvaplana into town), I connected with Holly Brooks and we headed over to Caitlin and Brian Gregg’s apartment for dinner. They had cooked up a feast and it was a blast to connect with all of Team Gregg, including Brian’s mom and brother, and Elias Bucher, who was working as their wax tech and later gave me and Holly a ride back to Zurich. I had missed Caitlin’s amazing bronze-medal winning race at World Championships by just one day, so she showed me her medal, too!

I spent a lot of time with Holly, who has been stopping by my house in Zürich in between stints racing the different FIS Marathon Cup races. She has a great blog about her experiences – she has won quite a few of the races and is the current leader of the Cup, but also is trying to figure out the logistics for some of these trips where Americans rarely, if ever, travel to the races. Her blog is a great mix of athletic stories, cultural experiences, and travel advice. She’s also working towards a masters degree in counseling psychology, and it’s absolutely amazing what she is juggling and excelling at simultaneously. Check out the blog here, or for a different perspective on the Engadin, you can read her post here (Holly finished fifth). Holly also saved my bacon in terms of getting me a ride to the start along with the Salomon team who was supporting her, and sharing her wax box with me so I could wax up my skis to be super fast. Mostly, though, it’s just always fun to hang out with this lady!

Holly was staying in an apartment in Samedan, about the midpoint of the race, which had been rented by her friend Tony (pictured with me and Holly at the sunny finish in the photo above!). I was very lucky that there was room for me to stay there too. Joining us was also Sarah Willis, an American who was in Sweden at the same time as me and is now doing a PhD in exercise physiology in Lausanne. Despite all the things we have in common we had never met, so it was really fun to hang out with Sarah. She’s also a super badass mountain running ultramarathon machine.

And finally, after the race we met up with a bigger U.S. crew and sat at a picnic table in the Engadin sun drinking beer. We were joined by Fast Big Dog and his friends, Tony, Team Gregg, and Inge Scheve and Kent Murdoch; I improbably ran into my friend Greg as he was walking by; and some other U.S. elite skiers who had competed dropped by and said hi.

It was a really nice weekend of reconnecting with part of my community, and although I was completely exhausted by the time I got back to Zürich (the drive was horrendous, the worst traffic ever in Switzerland), I was filled with a happy glow all week. Hooray for ski racing, skiing, and skiers!

on to Falun.

•February 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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There are several blog posts which I have planned but not yet executed (God I couldn’t sound more like a scientist/robot if I tried), but instead I traveled…. last night I made it to Falun, Sweden, site of 2015 FIS Nordic Ski World Championships! Today cross country skiers, nordic combined athletes, and ski jumpers all had medal events. It’s crazy and fun and I’m super excited. I am working for FasterSkier.com, but with three of us here it’s nowhere near as stressful or crazy as when I go to a World Cup weekend singlehanded, and nowhere near as crazy as last year at the Olympics. We have three people and three articles per day while I’m here, not one person and three articles or three people and six or ten articles. Phew!

So not only is it work, but it is also vacation: we can sleep as long as we want in the mornings, and spend time talking and hanging out. It’s great to see my coworkers Alex and Lander again and I’m hoping to have time to see lots of other friends too. I have a breakfast date with Ida tomorrow morning and am very excited to catch up with buddies from the U.S.. Watching some very exciting ski racing is always fun, too.

And finally, it just feels great to be back in Sweden. As soon as I landed at Arlanda airport, I exhaled a sigh of relief: ahhhhh. It feels like home (maybe literally, since I spent quite a few nights sleeping in that dang airport). I hadn’t thought that Zürich didn’t feel like home, but Sweden is the place where I’ve spent the most time in the last 2 1/2 years, and it just feels comfortable to be back. Everything feels familiar and nice.

Here’s a link to my first article onsite, if you’re new to the blog and want to see what I do in my “other”, non-scientist life.

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